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Understanding Social Anxiety

What is Social Anxiety?

Most of us can feel nervous in new or high-pressure social situations; things like a first date, a job interview, a new school, etc.  It can be a little stressful when you don’t know what to expect or how things will play out. We might even feel a bit unsettled in our stomach–or get the  “butterflies” that come with new social experiences. None of these experiences are out of the ordinary or cause for major concern, however, if you feel dread, discomfort, or apprehension over regular, everyday social interactions then it may be something a little more serious like social anxiety.

Social anxiety, also called social phobia, is not just nervousness. It is an intense, persistent fear of common social experiences. Things like going to the grocery store, catching the bus, chatting with a neighbor can all be extremely difficult for someone with social anxiety.  For folks with social anxiety there is a looming feeling of fear over almost all interactions; fear of being judged, fear of being embarrassed, fear of being rejected or seen making mistakes.

What are the common causes of + symptoms of Social Anxiety?

There are many causes of social anxiety. These include: 

  • Genetics: Children of parents with social anxiety disorder have a 30-40% greater chance of also developing social anxiety than those whose parents don’t.
  • Brain Activity: Anxiety is often caused by hyperactivity in the part of the brain called the amygdala–this part of the brain is in control of the “fight or flight” response. The hyperactivity in this part of the brain creates a state of near-constant panic, even when situations do not have the need of the “fight or flight” response.
  • Life Experiences: Various life and childhood traumas (bullying; sexual, physical, or emotional abuse; family conflicts; the death of family members or other loved ones, etc) can also contribute to the development of social anxiety disorder. 

Do you have trouble meeting new people? Do you avoid checking your mail or doing your laundry when you know your neighbors will be around? Do new social situations stress you out to the point that you avoid social settings? 

 There are a lot of ways social anxiety can present itself. But if you answered yes to any of the above questions, it is likely that social anxiety is influencing your life choices.

Other signs of social anxiety include: 

  • Avoidance: Do you avoid places where you know there will be a lot of people or places you aren’t familiar with? Do you feel panicky around big crowds and try to escape? Do you blow off friends and isolate yourself at home because the thought of being around others makes your thoughts race?
  • Your mind going blank: this can happen when talking to someone new, in a job interview, on a date, while giving a presentation, etc. Though you may have a very active mind, suddenly in social situations you may find yourself with a blank mind. It can feel like all of your thoughts and parts of your personality just fell out of your head without warning. 
  • Frequent feelings of embarrassment: Do you find yourself distracted by mental chatter during social interactions? You may easily feel embarrassed if you think you said something wrong; you may feel pressure to impress people you don’t know; you may feel awkward or uncomfortable when trying to converse with new people; you may feel too anxious to approach the people that you would like to talk to.
  • Physical discomfort: Do you feel nauseous in social situations? Does your body tense? Do you get frequent stomach aches? 

How does Social Anxiety affect your day-to-day?

When you suffer from social anxiety, everyday interactions can be painful and exhausting. Something simple like popping into a cafe for some coffee can become a huge hurdle. The uncertainty of the situation can lead to constant worry and fear that you will do something wrong and be judged or embarrassed in a social situation.

Take our example of the coffee shop: While for some people it is a simple process (go in, order coffee, leave) someone with social anxiety will be overwhelmed by questions and fears that hijack their minds.

These are thoughts like:

  • Where do you go in? Where is the menu? Where do you order? Social anxiety disorder is a fully treatable condition that can be overcome with effective therapy, commitment, and patience.o you wait at the counter for your order or do you find a table? When your order is ready do you get up and get it, or do they bring it to you? Do you bring your dirty dishes back to the counter or is there a bin to put them in? What if I don’t do it the way other people in the coffee shop do, and they all think I’m stupid? 

How Can You Treat and Manage Social Anxiety?

Though it feels insurmountable social anxiety is a treatable condition that can be overcome with effective therapy and commitment. Below are a few ways you can start to work on alleviating the symptoms of social anxiety.

  • Medication: Medication is a useful form of treatment for many, but not all, people with social anxiety disorder (social phobia). Research suggests that the use of anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, and certain selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) used in conjunction with CBT have been most beneficial. Only CBT can permanently change the neural pathway associations in the brain and therefore medication alone has no long-term benefits for people with social anxiety.
  • CBT Therapy: CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) is a form of talk therapy where the goal is to become aware of and eventually reframe negative thinking patterns. This can help with anxiety, as it will help you identify where your anxiety comes from, how it typically manifests, and how you can begin to reframe that process.
  • Practice mindful breathing: If your thoughts are racing, try intentional breathing. Breathe in slowly, expanding your stomach as far as it will go. When you feel you’ve reached capacity, count to 8 before releasing your breath. Repeat this process 10 times, or as many times as it takes for you to begin to slow your thoughts and feel more grounded in the present.
  • Yoga: Much like mindful breathing, yoga is another practice that can help ground you and alleviate anxiety. Along with helping to ease mental and emotional symptoms of anxiety, yoga is a great tool to connect with and listen to your body and work to ease the physical symptoms (insomnia, muscle tension, etc.) that also come along with anxiety. 

Carmen Riley is a Licensed Professional Counselor in the State of Virginia and the District of Columbia. She is the owner of Zion Restoration Counseling Services, a group practice in Fairfax Virginia that specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and trauma. 

To learn more or if you would like to make an appointment to check out her website at 

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